Note: This review contains spoilers.
When the credits started rolling for Captain America: Winter Soldier, I managed to initiate a round of applause. It was slow in building, but eventually it picked up. This was surprising and reassuring, given that the audience doing the clapping was in Alabama, thought to be one of America’s many centers of jingoism, and since, unlike many other “action figure” movies, like the “oo-rah” Transformers and G.I. Joe franchises, the movie’s over-arching message was radically anti-jingoistic, and can even be interpreted as radically libertarian. [Spoilers ahead.]
Captain America (played by Chris Evans) works for SHIELD (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division), an international agency run by a shady “World Security Council.” The big twist in the movie is the revelation that SHIELD, virtually since its World War II inception, has been deeply infiltrated by HYDRA, a terrorist network bent on world conquest and named after a mythical many-headed snake-like monster. HYDRA has been using SHIELD (as well as its operative “the Winter Soldier,” played by Sebastian Stan) to surreptitiously foment world chaos for 60 years, with the purpose of whipping up so much fear that the public will seek security in HYDRA’s slithering totalitarian embrace.
This SHIELD/HYDRA conjunction is a splendid analogue for the State itself. The illusion is that the State, like SHIELD, is a “shield”: an essential protector of life, liberty, and property against criminals, foreign and domestic. The reality is that the State, like the HYDRA-infested SHIELD, is a monstrous institution, shot through with the most dastardly criminals of them all, and hellbent on ensnaring in its coils as many people as possible, and as tightly as it can get away with.